The hawk may yet choose peace A different path to peace

Israel's new Prime Minister could surprise us as Begin did, writes Chaim Bermant
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The Independent Online
So all those Arabs died in vain. Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel's latest assault on south Lebanon, was a desperate attempt by Shimon Peres to show Israeli voters that, though he was a man of peace, he could be ruthless. Paradoxically, his ultimate aim was to save the peace process of which he had been a principal architect. The operation drove hundreds of thousands from their homes and claimed an estimated 150 lives, but it didn't do the one thing that Mr Peres really wanted. By the narrowest of margins, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in his place last week and there is now a general fear that this means the peace process will falter or even collapse altogether.

That fear might - just might - be unfounded. During the election, Mr Netanyahu was depicted by Labour as "Bibi zig, Bibi zag, Bibi zigzag". It was a fair description, for no one is quite certain what the Likud leader stands for, possibly not even himself. This could just prove to be a strength: it could allow him to make peace, in his own way.

The one thing that can be said of him for certain is that he is no Shamir. Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's last Likud prime minister, was an implacable opponent of negotiation. "Not an inch" was his attitude. He opposed the Camp David agreement with Egypt in 1978 and the withdrawal from Sinai that followed it, and he personally tried to wreck the Madrid peace conference of 1991.

Mr Netanyahu, for all his electoral tough-talking, is different. He has no wish to send Israeli troops back to reoccupy Gaza and it seems that he has no plans to roll back the other work of the past two years and re-enter Jericho, Nablus, Jenin or any of the other major Arab towns. He has said that he accepts the first, completed stage of the Oslo accords as a fact of life. About the second phase, the uncompleted West Bank withdrawals, he is vague and he is totally unclear about the other stages, which have still to be agreed in detail or embarked upon - but then so was Mr Peres.

He has said that he would never meet Yasser Arafat, but has had second thoughts.

The sticking-point may be Hebron, the Palestinian town which, according to Jewish tradition, is the burial place of the patriarchs. This is where the Israeli settler movement started and there is now a sizeable Jewish presence determined not to be dislodged. Here, even Mr Peres was dragging his feet about withdrawal and we can expect Mr Netanyahu to delay it further, but again there is no certainty that he will keep troops there for good.

When Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister in 1977, no one - possibly not even Mr Begin himself - thought that he would withdraw Israeli forces completely from Sinai a few years later. He was a hardliner and a hawk and his arrival in power was greeted with something like the same worldwide dismay that we have seen in the past few days. Yet Mr Begin, who was not Orthodox, was something of a mystic, and he came to believe that a peace settlement with Egypt would enable Israel to continue unmolested in Judea and Samaria, or the "ancestral homeland", as he called it.

Mr Netanyahu is no mystic. His kingdom is of this world - too much so, some of his critics would say - and he does not travel with the same emotional baggage as Begin. He was brought up in the US, has no memories of persecution and is not obsessed with the Holocaust. Instead, like most Israelis today, he has an American taste for the good life, and this may prove a powerful influence on his politics.

He cannot be unaware of the prosperity which the peace process has brought to Israel, including trade agreements with several Arab states which have yet to accord it diplomatic recognition. It could become, as it is fast becoming, the Hong Kong of the Middle East. It would become a pariah if the peace process was to be halted, and would be shunned not only by its neighbours, but perhaps by its friends, for even the United States would have difficulty reconciling itself to a persistently bloody-minded, dog-in-the-manger, aggressive Israel.

Mr Netanyahu would thus encounter less opposition than we might expect from within his own party if he were to continue - albeit at a slower pace and in a different style - where Mr Peres left off. He would, however, excite the anathema of the religious parties whose followers voted for him to a man, not because they thought of him as a picture of piety but because they believed that he would assure the territorial integrity of Greater Israel.

In the past the religious parties were divided between the ultra-orthodox, who were non-Zionist, unworldly, and mainly concerned to preserve their traditional way of life, and the so-called moderate elements, as represented by the National Religious Party, which sought to give a kosher flavour to Zionism and were happy to serve in successive Labour-led coalitions.

The moderate elements, however, have ceased to be moderate, and the unworldly elements have become nationalist, and both are vehemently opposed to the Oslo accords and all they represent. Moreover, the moderates' power is growing. They have hitherto never had more than 18 members in the 120-seat Knesset, but it now looks as if they will have 24 or even 25. They have always had an influence out of proportion to their numbers; now they also have numbers. They may now be the natural allies of Likud but they are feared by them almost as much as they are by Labour.

Given the balance of strengths in the new Knesset, Mr Netanyahu with only 32 Likud seats can form a right-wing government only with the support of the religious parties. It seems most likely that is what he will do. But there is nothing now or in the future to prevent Mr Netanyahu from forming a coalition with Labour. On social and economic issues there is as little to divide Mr Netanyahu from Mr Peres as Mr Major from Mr Blair and, as I have suggested, there is not all that much to divide them even on the West Bank.

Moreover, the change in the electoral system which has brought Mr Netanyahu to office was specifically designed to limit the bargaining power of the minor parties, and especially the religious ones, which for the past 48 years have held the major parties to ransom. As an experiment it has proved to be a disaster and is unlikely to be repeated, but in the meantime, a coalition between the major parties would cut them down to size, and in the event of progress in the peace process Labour could still support Likud from the opposition benches as it did over Camp David.

The Middle East is the home of the unexpected, even of miracles, and if a dove like Mr Peres could launch something as vicious as "Grapes of Wrath", it is not impossible that a hawk like Mr Netanyahu could have the sense of history to bring the peace process to a satisfactory conclusion.